The problem Brown and Kate Zidar, executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, explored, had to do with something called “combined sewage overflows.” (CSOs). When it rains, a combined sewer system (meaning a sewer system that runs street runoff and residential raw sewage in the same pipes) can become overburdened, so it’ll spew the sewage into surrounding waters. New York Harbor sees about 27 billion gallons of this stuff discharged into it annually, from 460 CSO pipe outlets. With a new injection of federal funding for Newtown Creek's Superfund status, the Alliance and Riverkeeper are trying to accomplish two main things: closely monitor the water for CSOs and test for the presence of enterococcus at hundreds of different sites up and down Newtown Creek and the Hudson, as well as figure out the best way to solve New York's shit problem in terms of tax dollars spent.
Riverkeeper began monitoring water quality on the Hudson in 2006, to make up for the lack of information made available to the public by local government. This becomes crucial when summer approaches and the banks of the Hudson become a popular beach for unwitting swimmers. If there's sewage in the water, there's also the possibility of pathogens.
The way that the EPA and Riverkeeper show the likelihood of coming into contact with these pathogens is a rating of acceptable, possible, or unacceptable risk. Compared to U.S. beaches, which have an unacceptable risk 7% of the time, the Hudson River has a 23% unacceptable risk. The good news is that, regionally, New York City's waterways don't do too terribly—compared to Albany, which has an unacceptable risk 36% of the time, NYC's are only unacceptably risky 21% of the time. In dry weather, it's even better. "Albany's just a shitstorm," Brown said.
Still, at least 3 billion gallons of raw sewage, out of the combined discharge, are released into the water annually. The problem is that, unlike potholes, CSOs are mostly invisible, but very serious, public health problems—invisible, that is, unless you see toilet paper or tampons bubbling out of a manhole cover, which Brown has.
As part of the federal Clean Water Act, the Department of Environmental Protection (the New York City agency) and the Department of Environmental Conservation (New York State), are required by law to come up with something called a Long Term Control Plan that manages CSOs. New York's plan is currently being renegotiated in draft form, and has expanded in a novel way to include green infrastructure as part of the solution. But according to the Newtown Creek Alliance, Newtown Creek, now a Superfund site, still gets shafted in this renegotiated plan. There'd be 136 million more gallons per year of sewage released into the creek than promised in 2005, Zidar said. The plan also includes millions of dollars spent toward bubblers in the creek, which inject oxygen by "aerating" the water to stimulate wildlife, but many are concerned these bubblers are ineffectual, or might do more harm than good.
As a takeaway, Zidar urged audience members to submit their input on the draft, for which the public commenting period ends Friday, March 9. Meanwhile, Brown suggested adopting a watershed or investing in wastewater infrastructure. Of course, Brown also highlighted one easy way anyone can be a CSO or river watchdog: Take pictures of oil slicks or bubbling sewer grates. Yes, literally—Instagram that shit.
You can follow Sydney Brownstone on Twitter @sydbrownstone